Study Design

Four GEMS Alumni tell us what it is like to study Design at colleges around the world

gems schools laptop camera and notebook

Tanvi Malik is a graduate of The New School and the Parsons School of Design. She is currently a Design Intern at Aimee G and has worked as a Junior Designer at Currmbhoy & Co.

The first thing to note about this field is that there is a difference between art and design. Both are creative but art is more of an expression of something internal while design is somewhat more of a projection of something external, often a product. Though art can also be a product, it does not have to be. When studying the two, it’s important to see where you stand because that makes all the difference when choosing a path or major.

Fashion, for example, creates a product.There is a regimented scheme that you have to follow to be a fashion designer. Some people can cope with this regimentation, and some cannot. I have to say that through my experience, though I love the process of creation, I still find it hard to come to terms with the industry.

Fine arts like painting, on the other hand, demands that you create something and does not guarantee that it will be received, let alone appreciated. Sometimes, this is daunting and at other times it gives you the freedom to choose what you create. Because the nature of this kind of work is so personal, art and design demand that you put your entire soul out there for people to judge, it is incredibly painful both physically, as it is studio work which means it is hands-on, and emotionally, because people are essentially critiquing you and the way you think.

You cannot hide behind logic and numbers in this field, not even in architecture, because even that is designed. The most important thing to remember is your own interests and direction - the main method of teaching art/design is to critique and so you will be receiving unwanted feedback more often than not. While you should listen to all the comments, also remember that you should be developing your personal practice.

You should formulate a method and a framework that works for you - figure out what times of the day you are most productive, in what settings, what inspires you, etc. because creating something cannot happen on command and when you have assignments due it’s not always easy to find your momentum. I guess the main point is that in order to reach your most creative potential, you need to get to know yourself and be confident with yourself, enough to create a lot of work and enough to have that work criticized.

I didn't always know I wanted to study art/design. The first two years of high school I wasn't even in any art classes. But I always loved to write and draw and was fairly voracious when it came to fashion magazines. By the time I started IB, I realized I wanted to go to art/design school for fashion and took an Independent Study of art at school since it was too late to join the IB Art program, and then also took night classes for two years at the Dubai International Art Center.

I took classes in Fine Arts for one year to develop my portfolio, which is like your DNA in this field and therefore incredibly important, and also in pattern drafting and sewing just to see how I liked this kind of work and if I really wanted to pursue this.

It was a huge workload but if you are planning on working in art/design, you should be prepared. My first year at Parsons, most of my classes were 6 hours long, one was even 9 hours. The shortest classes are 3 hours and the homework will take you all night sometimes because that is just how long it takes to create something with your hands. It is very demanding, which is why you should be just as passionate about it. This doesn't mean you have to love it all the time, I definitely do not, but it means that given any other opportunity, you would still choose to do this.

When choosing art/design schools, unless you are 500% sure that you know the major you want to get into, I would suggest looking for schools that have a Foundation year program - a first year where you get to try many different kinds of disciplines before you definitively declare your major.

Although I was so sure that I wanted to be in Fashion, my Foundation program gave me the opportunity to explore working with unconventional materials like wood and metal and also helped me develop my drawing skills, to name just a few. This is so important in becoming a well-rounded and innovative artist/designer.

In order to be successful in this field, you always have to be thinking of how you can make something new, something different. Knowledge of other materials or industries will you give you an upper hand in your own specific work. For example, I create clothes but I worked for an architect for over a year and a half and this has made me a much stronger designer. I also moved from the Fashion specific program to an Integrated/Fashion program that allows you to explore innovation in Fashion. Younger programs like this bridge the gap between artists and designers - I highly encourage this kind of thinking.

Lastly, the idea of the portfolio - this gives people so much anxiety because you have to represent yourself through these images or pieces that you create. This is very difficult but that is why you need to make a lot of art so that you can choose just a few to show off - not everything you make will be great. Some of it might not even be good. And this is why when you create 100 pieces, you can see where your strengths lie and you can choose the best 5 to exhibit. Never show mediocre work. It's better to show less work that is spectacular, than more work that is just okay.

Definitely show a range of skills, but also be consistent in at least a few pieces so that the viewer can understand where your interest lies. It important to have a direction - that makes you unique. Even if you don't really have one, make it up. You can change your mind, artists/designers always do! The point is to be open enough to experimentation and confident enough to take risks. Every experience will help shape you. The best way to learn is by negation, try everything to figure out what you like and don't like, rather than going into a situation with tunnel vision.

I don't think there isn't enough importance placed on creative fields in our schools and when I was graduating many told me that by choosing art/design school that I was taking the easy way out. I believe that I work harder and sleep less than anyone I went to high school with and Michelle Obama just did an empowerment workshop at the White House explaining how important design fields are to economy. Everything in our world is essentially designed and with technology, more and more jobs are being created.

I hope that more GEMS students move into this field because it is incredibly exciting and rewarding.

Francesca Roque is a former student of Dubai American Academy who studied Fine Arts and Interior Design at the Savanah College of Art and Design.

What led you to towards studying/working in design?

Mostly because it runs in the family, so I was always exposed to it. Art classes throughout elementary/high school also played a big role, it was always my favourite subject, so now looking back it showed me that I belong to a creative field, and never the “business” route.
Knowing what you now know, how has your perspective of studying/working in design related industries changed from when you were at school?

College exposed me to the business/professional aspect of the design industry because it’s one of the core classes. Therefore, I didn’t step into the professional world a blank slate, which helps a lot! Also internships while in college will definitely help shape what you are learning in school so it’s best to get on that in your third year of college! It helps put what you learn in class into perspective. I am in my second year out of college and I am still learning everyday, comparing what happened in the classroom to now.

Did you have an understanding of which field of design you wanted to work in when you applied for design courses?

Yes, but that’s because my Grandpa took me to his Interior Design office before I went into college. No need to worry if you’re going to Art/Design school but don’t know what to focus on, you spend the first year and a half in foundation courses – drawing, painting, etc and then you can take Intro classes to what you’re interested in. It’s normal to not know what you’re going to focus on, it's normal to keep on changing your mind. But hopefully you figure it out sooner than later.

Whereabouts do/did you study design? Would you recommend it? What insights would you offer into studying design in your institution?

Savannah College of Art & Design in Atlanta, GA. I know a few people from DAA who also went before & after me! I highly recommend it. Art school is one of the best decisions I made – because I knew I was not made for a regular institution.To me, Atlanta was a better campus because it is smaller compared to the main one in Savannah, GA. It’s easier to meet people in different majors, and the city is home to a lot of international firms.

From what you understand now, is there anywhere else you would recommend as a place to study?

No matter which school you choose, always always do the study-abroad program. Life-changing, even if you are a regular traveller anyway!

Anything else you wished you’d known about it before you applied? Any suggestions for things people should read/learn before they apply?

Only show your best work in your portfolio. Make sure you run your college application essays through your art teachers/counsellors!

In high school, I didn’t realize the difference with art & design. But now I do; art is a bit more “free” while design has some guidelines! Also, you’ll learn that design is an on-going process, we have deadlines because we need to move on, but there will always be the “I could have done this” feeling.

My “Professional Practices” course was a lot of information, it was a bit overwhelming. But once you work at a firm, it all comes into place and I feel that’s when you really understand the business of the creative field.

What skills and requirements make a good designer in your opinion? How would a prospective design student know if they were well suited to a career in design?

You have to be a good collaborator. In real-world design, you don’t do everything yourself, but in school you do because you have to learn all the different processes. You have to be passionate, be ready to pull all-nighters.

Is it hard to find opportunities in your career? What have you learnt about how best to advance your career in design industries?

Just like everything in life, it is all about networking! Get yourself out there, make connections. Also, you have to keep up to date with the latest software. Your CV should be different – brand yourself, create your own logo. This is a creative environment, the regular black & white CV wouldn’t be too exciting to look at, but then again – don’t go crazy. You’ll learn in college!

If you are already working in design, what is your career like? What do you actually do on a day to day business? 

I work in Interior Design, the day usually consists of meeting with clients, sending out e-mails, contacting companies that sell the furniture, floor materials, lights, (whatever else goes into a building/house) and asking them about their products, or placing an order etc., drawing on the computer, going to the work site to make sure whatever is in the construction phase is going right (working with contractors), going into meetings.

I am usually working on two or three commercial or residential projects at a time so it’s important to organize your physical and electronic files! It is exciting and I am doing a lot of it for the first time professionally, so sometimes it's nerve wrecking but then again it is through experience that you learn.

If you are studying design, how do you feel about your future employment possibilities? What are your future aspirations? How would you see your career developing?

I am waiting for the day I design a spa or hotel! (I obviously grew up in Dubai!)

How transferable do you see your skills? Is what you do quite specialised or does it allow you some flexibility?

Design is flexible – Photoshop and Illustrator can help with pretty much any other aspect of design.

From day one in college, I knew I have to work in a big firm, however I am currently in an office of six and I really like how small we are! Even though things don’t always go the way you want it to, as cheesy as it sounds, great things can come out of it! I can still move on to a bigger firm later on, but for now, this is good experience still I am only in my second year out of college.

Make sure you enjoy what you do, or else your work won’t be good or you won’t be happy. Design is a part of life and you’ll learn that in art school. What you learn in the class room really does happen in the real world. You’ll realize everything around you comes from someone somewhere that thought of it, drew it out and had a team to make it a reality! It may not always be good design, but that’s a different story!

Leon Single is a graduate of Jumeirah College. He is a freelance designer and as Designers Xchange Manager at MyMiniFactory / iMakr. He studied Product Design at London South Bank University

What led you to towards studying/working in design?

Luckily, I have always been interested in the creative field and technology, which led me naturally to discover and play with computer software and hardware. I actually broke numerous things taking them apart as a child to figure out how it worked. The software opened up video and photo editing which led to the interest in photography and film, and wanting to create more than just 2D representations of objects. Generally having a geeky outlook and playing video games/watching films influenced my interest and my choice to study design. Starting at GCSE with graphic products through to A level with Product Design.
Knowing what you now know, how has your perspective of studying/working in design related industries changed from when you were at school?

At school, things generally feel black and white - you are good or you aren't good at certain activities. The biggest change from school to university to work is the wide range of individuals required. Design specifically requires people of every niche imaginable. A designer may be good at computer software, but may not be as good at hand drawing - both desirable skills. This calls for teams of people to work together which you do get in school, but on the same level - day in day out working together to achieve an end result, whereas traditional study is for the individuals end result (good grades etc) with a taste for teamwork.

Did you have an understanding of which field of design you wanted to work in when you applied for design courses?

As a broad spectrum area, I opted for the design course that would teach me enough of everything. I was interested in graphic design, photography, mixed media, marketing, 3D objects, game development - So I chose Product design which can incorporates parts of all of these things.

So strictly speaking, I was not 100% sure of which field I was going to end up in or wanting to pursue, but I am in a good place with an understanding of many things, but possibly in less details. A Jack of all trades degree.

Whereabouts do/did you study design? Would you recommend it? What insights would you offer into studying design in your institution?

I studied at London Southbank University. If your going for the Uni experience then I'd say it isn't at the top of the list. Being in Central London, it is expensive and you are forced to integrate with society (a negative for them I would think). If you want the nitty-gritty "welcome to the real world" then I would definitely recommend it. I would say I am better off for it.

In my field there are universities that are renowned for their alumni. However in my experience of dealing with various people from different universities, the real difference shows in the individual and each year the cohort changes dramatically. I would recommend anywhere that focuses on relevant design, and functional design. Many focus on conceptual design which is a good study area but employers like to see results from your ideas as well. (There are jobs that focus on conceptual design however).

Anything else you wished you’d known about it before you applied? Any suggestions for things people should read/learn before they apply?

The open day answered the majority of my questions. Two key things people should learn is Hand/traditional skills and be as computer literate as possible. Traditional skills involve sketching (quick but clear concepts etc), rendering without the need for a computer (Alcohol based pens, biro, fineliner), sketch modelling (producing quick 'dirty' mock ups of ideas out of paper, card, cereal boxes to quickly illustrate shape or scale), Workshop skills (being able to use a bandsaw, belt sander, pillar drill etc) and finally - be aware of your surroundings and materials they use/processes used to make everyday objects.

Computer literacy. Computers are used everyday in design practice. Learning the adobe suite is highly advised and a must have skill - Photoshop, illustrator and indesign at the minimum. A 3D CAD package. There are lots of variances here. It is good to know a general surface software such as 3DSMax, Alias, Maya or Rhino. Blender is a FREE software that is great for getting into modelling. SketchUp is okay, but you will seldom find it used in this field. It is also advantageous to get your hands on a solid modelling software such as solidworks which is used extensively in many design firms.

On a side note - public speaking is a good skill to develop as you will often need to present your fantastic idea to your colleagues/peers, bosses/lecturers and even the public.

What skills and requirements make a good designer in your opinion? How would a prospective design student know if they were well suited to a career in design?

Determination and passion are key. It isn't an easy subject to study and requires lots of late nights. If you don't have an inherent passion for the subject then it can be hard to excel. Good verbal, written visual communication is also important to bear in mind.

Is it hard to find opportunities in your career? What have you learnt about how best to advance your career in design industries?

Leaving Uni in what was hopefully the last wave of the recession, it was quite hard to find employment in the exact field I wanted to pursue. Also, with so many people graduating with like degrees it is often the case as with me and my peers to start at the bottom of a company. You may be expected to complete repetitive tasks such as research and image editing until you have 'proved' yourself, so to speak. To advance in said career, I would reccomend work hard and work extra hours when you can. From personal experience, gaining prior experience in a gap/sandwich year was beneficial in finding a job.

If you are already working in design, what is your career like? What do you actually do on a day to day business? 

I work in a 3D printing company directed at the consumer market (Desktop 3D printing). We have a free file sharing site for printable content that supports our printer sales. I don't strictly design on a day to day basis. I am a manager who is in contact with external designers to create new 3D content for our site for our users to print. Having a design background allows me to communicate with other designers. It is administration, with an understanding of engineering to be able to work with the printers directly and understand the quality of the content being produced and how they can best be adapted for the technology. I still freelance for a number of people I meet through business and using web advertising and freelance websites etc. I aim to move to a more creative job after another six months at my current job.

What are your future aspirations? How would you see your career developing?

I started a freelance company whilst at university which I aim to take further and register as an LTD. In the future I aim to open a design studio in London.

Product designers are easily accepted into various fields due to the scope of skills you pick up in education (as mentioned previously). I have peers who work as graphic designers, some are self employed developing work from university and even one that works in the gardening/golf green industry.

If you could share one thing with your younger self about pursuing design, what would it be?

Get cracking on learning more core skills and get to grips with 3D software. Work on your graphic design skills and go to bed early, wake up early.

Jenai Kavarana is a former student of Jumeirah College. She has a Bachelor of the Arts in Graphic for Media Design, Information Design Pathway from the University of the Arts London and an MA in Visual Brand Design from Domus Academy in Milan. She is currently the Lead Designer and Community Manager for Organize in New York.

What led you to towards studying/working in design?

I have always been interested in design, I LOVED GCSE and A Level Art and Product Design (with Ms. Miles - she was a remarkable teacher, I learnt so, SO much from her). My mother is an artist, so I guess it has always been in my blood. I grew up surrounded my art and was always challenged to think outside the box.

Knowing what you now know, how has your perspective of studying/working in design related industries changed from when you were at school?

I guess the biggest change from school to my career is the use of computer programs in design... We dabbled a bit with photoshop in art but in Uni and at work I have realized the importance of computer graphics especially for my career.

Did you have an understanding of which field of design you wanted to work in when you applied for design courses?

Yes, I was always focused on graphic for media design because it was a great blend of business skills and creativity. I A Levels were Art, Product Design and Business Studies so I was focused from a young age.

Whereabouts do/did you study design? Would you recommend it? What insights would you offer into studying design in your institution?

I was one of the fortunate people who was allowed to skip my design foundation year at the University of Arts London, London College of Communication. I was accepted at an interview they help in Dubai and so did not have to worry about the hassle of applying to other colleges as it was my top choice and I was able to complete a 4 year course in 3 years. I then went on to accept a scholarship at Domus Academy in Milan Italy for a Masters in Visual Brand Design. I would recommend this to other people because more than the classroom learning, I was able to soak up, get inspired by and learn from my surroundings...

From what you understand now, is there anywhere else you would recommend as a place to study?

I was accepted into the first round of applications at Parson in New York and if they had offered me a chance to skip a year I would have surely taken it. I always wanted to live in New York so I have moved here for work, I work as the Lead Designer and Community Manager at ORGANIZE.org a non-profit, startup that is building the very first central registry for organ donors in the US. Other places I would recommend for study are: Parsons, RISD, SCAD, St. Martins, Yale.

Anything else you wished you’d known about it before you applied?

I wanted to pursue architecture at one point during my A Levels (because of my final project with Ms. Miles) but I was unable to do so because I had dropped Math and Physics. It would have been a bit helpful to know what areas of study one must pursue for different career options eg. Architecture: Math/Physics/Art/Product Design/Resistant Materials/IT etc.

Any suggestions for things people should read/learn before they apply?

I think people should be sure they want to get into the design field when applying to colleges in the UK because of how rigid the system is to changing courses. I was able to transfer from Graphic Product Innovation to Graphic for Media Design during my second year because I was at the top of my class, my peers who also wanted to change courses to other fields of study were not permitted to do so because of their grades. In the US the system is much more flexible and open, where students are encouraged to learn and explore topics that interest them so if a participant is not 100% sure they should defiantly consider applying to colleges in the US.

What have you found interesting in your study of design? 

The most interesting projects happened during my final year of my BA (HONS) Graphic for Media Design course at the London College of Communication as we were given the freedom to do whatever we wanted. I was able to really dive deep into projects that interested me. I worked on a healthcare design project, and now that is where my career has lead me. Another great opportunity to learn was during my first year, it was compulsory for us to create a book of all the projects we did. This was a great portfolio building skill. You can find my first year book here: http://issuu.com/jenai/docs/jenai_portfolio_2010_2011

What skills and requirements make a good designer in your opinion? How would a prospective design student know if they were well suited to a career in design?

I think confidence is the main thing. If you really believe in your project and sell it with conviction, others will follow :)

The design industry is extremely competitive, especially in large cities like London, Milan and New York... that being said the design industry is booming as people are realizing the importance of good design so I think it's a very profitable and long lasting industry. There are so many different areas of design too. We are needed in every field of study :)

If you are already working in design, what is your career like? What do you actually do on a day to day business? 

As the lead designer and community manager of a start-up I am in charge of developing, maintaining and strategizing the brand. I have been eye-balling and working on all collateral that goes out of our office as I am in charge of our image.

What are your future aspirations? How would you see your career developing?

In the very near future I see myself shifting gears and working for an advertising agency before starting my own boutique branding firm in Mumbai, India.

How transferable do you see your skills? Is what you do quite specialised or does it allow you some flexibility?

I have been working on digital, print, marketing, creative strategy and brand development projects so I would say I am a broadly skilled designer. In the future I would like to narrow this down and focus in and hone a few skills and I'm leaning towards digital design and strategy as I see that as the most long lasting career (and frankly the most enjoyable and rewarding for me as I get to see designs implemented immediately and see analytics of what's working and what I can do to improve it).

If you could share one thing with your younger self about pursuing design, what would it be?

Learn any and all design software, the more you know, the more efficiently you can work!

Dina Reziapova is an alumnus of Wellington International School. She is a graduate of the School of Visual Arts in New York. She currently works as a Design Assistant at Lett by Heiberg Cummings.

Whereabouts do/did you study design? Would you recommend it? What insights would you offer into studying design in your institution? I am in my third year of obtaining BFA in Interior Design at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. SVA is very well known within the design industry and I would most definitely recommend it. Most of the teachers at SVA are professionals who are still working in the design industry so you get great feedback and inspiration from them.

Did you have an understanding of which field of design you wanted to work in when you applied for design courses?

At the time I wasn't sure which field of design I wanted to work in, but I knew that I was good with visual graphics and spatial design, so I applied for both. I wanted to keep my options open and it gave me that extra time to really think about what I wanted my profession to be.

From what you understand now, is there anywhere else you would recommend as a place to study?

I initially got accepted into Pratt which is also one of the top design and architecture universities in the city and I would recommend others to apply there too. It is located in Brooklyn so if you are looking to experience studying in Manhattan then you can also apply to Parsons the New School for Design that offers variety of design programs.

Any suggestions for things people should read/learn before they apply?

I would recommend researching the admission requirements for each art university that you are thinking of applying to as soon as you can. In additional to the normal requirements they will ask you to put together a portfolio and in addition to that some universities create design challenges for you to complete. Therefore it requires a lot of time and preparation so you want to make sure you are ready to submit everything before the deadline.

One of the things that my parents were concerned about is my safety and location of campuses so that was something that I researched a lot about my universities. If you are planning to move to a completely new country that you haven’t lived in before then you need to really learn everything about the area that you will be living in for the next four years.

What skills and requirements make a good designer in your opinion? How would a prospective design student know if they were well suited to a career in design?

Designers come in different shapes and form but the ones who succeed are very open minded and detail oriented. You really do have to think outside of the box in this industry and be able to generate ideas out of anything. You don’t necessarily need to be able to draw by hand but you do have to be able to visually express your ideas and thoughts. Therefore skills with computer programs such as the ones in Adobe Creative Suite will help you a lot. You will most likely learn most of these programs during the foundation year however prior knowledge will definitely allow you to advance quicker.

Is it hard to find opportunities in your career? What have you learnt about how best to advance your career in design industries?

There are a lot of different opportunities out there however there is a lot more competition nowadays within the design industry. You have to make yourself stand out, not with just your work but also the way you present yourself. You need to be able to talk about your work in an engaging manner and make yourself memorable.

If you are already working in design, what is your career like? What do you actually do on a day to day business? 

I currently have an internship with an Interior Design firm in the New York, and at the same time I am also designing two offices on my own. During the day I am mostly on my laptop: I sent out a lot of emails per day and work on floor plans, create concepts and renderings of spaces. On top of that I am a full time student so I have to stay very organized to keep up with all the work.